The Slave:Free Men, Book OneBy: Kate Aaron
Free Men, Book One
I stood silently in the farthest corner of the dark room when I was finally admitted, head bowed, hands clamped tightly behind my back, left wrist clasped in a death grip by my right fist, shoulders straight, stomach flat, unconsciously presenting. It was a default gesture, ingrained through years of habit, and punishment if I failed to comply immediately to my master’s wishes. The men talking in low voices forgot I was there once their initially curious assessment of me was over. My collar marked me clearly for what I was.
The cloying sweet scent of smoke wafted over me from the bubbling pipe that a small group shared, reclined on sumptuous fabrics, swaddled in mute light. An undercurrent of anticipation hummed in the air, making it shimmer. Everything had a mirage-like quality, or perhaps that was my own discomfort clouding my memories. My palms were slick, and I swiped a bead of moisture from my upper lip with my tongue. On the other side of those walls, the lots were undergoing their final preparations, primped and primed for sale.
Fifteen years earlier, I had been one of them, still a boy, little more than a child. Twelve summers had passed since my mother brought me forth, birthed me on the dirt floor of our simple tent. We were nomads, a small tribe that claimed allegiance to no flag but roamed the wastes of the Samatari desert. We knew nothing of the wars that raged around us, the political intrigues and power struggles of the nations which bordered our uncharted home.
The soldiers were rebel forces, I later learned, traitors to the King of Granthia to the east. They were moving west to join the lawless warriors of the barbarian Thirsk, Overlord of all the lands which lay beyond. All we knew was they were strangers, strangers in bright armour that shone and winked in the light of our two suns. They’d killed my father, my mother, my elder brothers. They’d taken my younger sister and hadn’t bothered waiting in turn, too greedy for their pound of female flesh. One held me by my hair and forced me to watch as they abused her until her terrified heart gave out. Even then, they weren’t finished.
They left the broken corpses of my family for the birds to peck at.
A bell rang, slicing through my memories and bringing a whole host of others to the fore. The men around me began standing, brushing creases and crumbs from their robes with impatient hands. Head bowed, I watched the procession of their feet as they left the room. I followed as my position dictated, careful to keep my balance and not trip as the long cloth of my robes swished around my ankles. At my master’s compound, I was expected to wear only the bare minimum of clothing. He claimed he liked to admire the blue dots and swirls which adorned my body, the old ink stains of a culture those monsters erased that day in the desert. My tattoos were a novelty to him; they made me exotic in this land of dark, unmarked flesh. For this trip, however, he’d insisted I cover not only my pale, patterned skin, but also my long white-blond hair.
We were shown into the next room, where chairs were arranged in a crescent around the Cage. I shivered a little, even in the oppressive heat of the building. Outside, the two suns beat down on this little outpost of the Thirskan Empire. Inside, without the respite of windows, it was stiflingly warm. The room was in total darkness save the bright lights focused on the centre of the Cage. I shuddered, remembering how it felt to stand there, naked and scared, on display for who knows how many pairs of eyes hidden by the blinding lights. The Cage’s bars were buried in the ceiling and in the floor of the raised platform on which it stood, the only way in or out a barred tunnel leading back to the pens below. Escape was impossible.
A few of the men took out fans, lazily wafting their faces as they settled in their seats and waited for the auction to commence. I hung back, knowing a seat would not be permitted to me. Instead, I positioned myself behind Master’s chair, usually vacant because he rarely purchased new slaves, having seemingly lost the taste for them since my mistress had removed much of the household to their mountain home, abandoning him here in the desert.
I clasped my hands before me, chin up and looking straight forward as I waited. I brushed the back of his seat with an index finger, rubbed the warm, textured velvet as though seeking comfort from something that was at least his if I couldn’t have him. He rarely sent me far from his sight. In small outposts like this one, the slave markets are slow. The best one could usually hope for was some unexpected treasure plucked from the desert, a creature like myself, young and scared enough to be docile.
He was an underlord of some sort, my master, and when some difficulty in a neighbouring village called him away, he’d ordered me to attend the auction at Otiz in his stead. “You know what I like, Tam.” I had smiled a little, proud I was being trusted with this responsibility even as I was consumed with sadness that he wanted another slave at all. Couldn’t I have been enough?